So You Want to Be a Writer

To whoever you are, whether or not I know you, however you found your way here, I want to say first that I am wishing you all the best and I hope beyond hope that you make it someday in writing. I do. I like reading a lot, I was a reader before I was a writer, and I want to read your stuff someday. That would be super cool. I wish you all the luck in the world.

Keyword, that: luck. We’ll be coming back around to that in a moment.

In the meantime, know that what I want most out of this is for you to take the leap you’ve been wanting to take. I hope you’ll get to the end of this armed with more knowledge, and that you can leap without getting clobbered by some totally preventable clobberings. (Totally a word.)

So, without further ado…

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I’ll be honest with you, I’m never entirely sure how to begin this. I still haven’t figured it out. No one tells you how to mentor when you get into this. I want to give you all of the information I wish I’d had when I went into this, but I don’t want to overwhelm you. So, do you have any specific questions?

Seriously. The more specific you can get your questions, the easier it is to set you on the path.

For now, I’ll set out a few rules – the natural laws of writing, if you will.

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Rule 1, 2 ways

Rule 1a: It is possible to pour your heart, your soul, and every ounce of skill you have into a manuscript, and not be able to pull it off. It is also possible to pull it off, get the most amazing cover you’ve ever seen, nail it on the blurb, choose all the right keywords…and hit the market wrong, in some way you may never figure out. The book might take off a month later, a year later, never. You won’t know the future, and you won’t know all of the reasons for the past.

This is the hardest lesson. God, I wish it were possible to tell you that enough effort can make not only a fantastic manuscript, but also a bestseller. I do. I wish it were possible for me to say that you could totally nail any concept you wanted to work with, too. I do.

I can’t. Here’s what I can say:

Rule 1b, paraphrased from author Boyd Craven: If you climb up into a tree in the middle of a thunderstorm and wave a piece of metal around, it’s really more a question of when lightning’s going to strike you, not if. When you absolutely nail your story and your presentation, that’s what you do. Maybe lightning won’t strike this time, but if you keep climbing up that tree, it will strike eventually. Also, since this is a metaphor, you won’t die from a lightning strike. So, bonus.

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Rule 2: there is no correlation between the quality of your manuscript, and how you feel about it. In fact, the Katson Uncertainty Corollary states that you can either know what you are trying to accomplish with your manuscript, or whether or not you think it’s any good, but not both.

Seriously. It’s ridiculous. Words that got dragged out of you one at a time with rusty pliers while you dreamed of any other career and wanted to die? Occasionally fantastic. Words that flowed like a gently burbling stream? Occasionally pure crap. That manuscript you cannot, for the life of you, get right? Will often get amazing reviews. Not only can you not tell how good a manuscript is by how you feel about it, you can’t even guarantee that you’ll feel any consistent way about a manuscript over time. Them’s the breaks. That’s why we have editors and beta readers.

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Rule 3: Most parts of publishing are in constant flux. It’s completely $%&*ing exhausting, but you just have to try to keep up. You’ll miss something. That’s okay. That’s what rule 4 is for.

Amazon changes their algorithms, Nook stops distributing in the UK, Google Play shuts down to new authors. The terms of Kindle Unlimited change, you realize FNAC hasn’t delisted your books, you spend $100 on a promo that was the best a year ago and doesn’t seem to work now. You’ve made plans, dammit, you’ve gotten into a groove, and now everything is changing? How were you even supposed to know about all of this?

The community will help, but make sure you are one of the helpers, too. Read on to Rule 4 for more information on that.

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Rule 4: Every piece of help you give other professionals will come back around tenfold.

I have never in my life met a demographic with more generous, helpful, genuinely amazing people than the indie publishing crowd. (For all I know, the traditional publishing crowd is exactly the same way, I just don’t know all that many of them. It seems likely, though – I mean, they really like books, too.) I know very, very few bestselling authors who don’t have blog posts and books and facebook groups devoted to helping other authors achieve the same success. They don’t hide their process, and they don’t get stingy with their advice. They’re awesome.

But publishing is also a part of the world of Art, and Art is difficult, and sometimes, after pouring your heart and soul into something only to see someone else’s career take off, there is bad feeling. So there is also a contingent of very bitter people who tear other people’s work to shreds and leave nasty reviews and all sorts of things. Very unpleasant.

It seems like indie publishing is a sort of double helix. You can get into the helpful spiral and go up, or get into the non-helpful spiral and go dowwwwwn. Get into the helpful spiral, I say. And you know how you do that? Be on the message boards. You almost always have some area of expertise someone else doesn’t have – and when you see that knowledge gap, fill it. Do that whenever you have the chance. I know it takes time, but you’ve been there, right? Late, exhausted, completely unable to figure out how to get the headers correct on your paperback formatting, and wasn’t it amazing that someone came to help?

Be that person. Just trust me on this one.

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Rule 5: Financially speaking, the best time to start writing for a living is probably never, unless you’ve inked a very large deal (in which case, whooooo!). You’re still probably going to do it anyway.

Okay, so if you have inked a very large deal, skip this and go celebrate. Spin around in the sunshine, take a day off, watch your favorite movie, go revel. We’ll come back to you in Rule 6. Go, go! (Likewise, if you just hit it really big on a book and you have tons of money, go take a few days and wiggle your toys and enjoy. Maybe buy a pretty notebook or two. Whatever you want!)

For the rest of you… Financially speaking, I can give you a few clues on how it goes to be an author. If you get an advance, of course there’s that, and then there’s either a 2 month lag for royalties after each month-end, or a 2 month lag for royalties after the end of a quarter, depending on which vendors you’re using. Usually a combination of the two. I’m given to understand that traditional publishing often does quarterly-with-lag as well.

This makes your income incredibly variable. Often there’s a gigantic summer slump. Christmas is volatile. And even if you hit it big right out of the gate, you won’t see that money for a couple of months at least (boo).

So the best time to quit your day job to start writing is:

  1. Not until you have 2 months of living expenses plus a good amount to tide you over or some work you can snap up if that first month hasn’t been great (plus money for editing and covers)
  2. Not until you have a solid back list (that is, a lot of books up for sale) and enough money coming in reliably each month that you can cover your expenses
  3. Some combination of those two. I take a bit more contract work on for months where I’m getting less royalties than usual.
  4. Yes, I know this wasn’t what you wanted to hear, but I don’t want to have you end up scrambling to pay bills.

Honestly, from both a financial and mental standpoint, writing is hard, writing for a living is a lot of pressure, and I sincerely advise you to write your first few books, at least, without needing to make your bread and butter money from that. It’s a time-honored tradition. Stephen King did it. Most of the big indie authors did it. You are not in any way lesser, or a failure, for having a day job while you build your career. In fact, it will probably help you write without getting all up in your head, which is one of the big problems writers face.

As with Rule 1b, if you keep climbing that tree and waving the metal around, you should be good to go at some point. Keep your finances in order and maybe speak to a financial advisor occasionally. Hopefully, you will be good to go soon!

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Rule 6: When you’re successful, some people will be really happy for you, some people will really want to be happy for you but won’t be able to, and some people will just be mean. Focus on that first group.

Our friends and family are…well, we love ’em, quirks and all. Unfortunately, many writers (and, I’m sure, musicians, actors, sculptors, etc) have family and friends who either refuse to be happy for them on principle or really, really want to be happy for them, and in an ideal world would be…but aren’t. And this is really, really hard.

If you’re not a thick-skinned person (and most writers I know really aren’t), this is going to be rough. You’re going to want to scream, “I know! I know you think I don’t deserve this! But I’m a writer, I have that playing on repeat in my head all day already, you don’t need to rub it in!” Because from your Aunt Betina who thinks you should have become an accountant to your snide Facebook friend who wants you to know that your writing isn’t as good as it should be, there will be people who waste no time in telling you how terrible you should feel about your success. And – and – I don’t know how they do this, but they are really fantastically good at knowing precisely the thing to say to throw you for a loop. Even people who’ve never met you before can do it, it’s really freaky.

There’s really nothing to do but grit your teeth and gut it out. Eventually, the reflexive self-recrimination and -hatred gets kind of boring and you can’t expend the energy on it anymore, but do try to make sure you’re spending time with people who make you laugh, taking time to do things you love (baths, walks, curling, hanging out with your dog, you name it), and trying to get healthy food into yourself at least occasionally. Ignoring assholes is difficult and it has been since kindergarten, but you’ve built up an arsenal of techniques by now that can help you do so (or if you haven’t, get ready because you’re about to learn real quick).

The people that are happy for you, well…there’s nothing to say there except to hug them close and never let them out of your life, because they are amazing. If you believe in angels, those are what they look like. They’re people who are kind and generous and full of happiness that can help you keep going on a down day. Keep those people in your life and try to learn from them so you can be one someday.

The ones that are really tricky are the two or three good friends (or close peers) who so, so, so want to be happy for you…and can’t be. They know they should. They definitely know. They probably know it doesn’t reflect very well on them that they can’t be. But they can’t. Attempts at support go sideways as they drag your manuscript through the mud a liiiiiiittle bit too harshly for it to be a good faith thing. Happy moments get bogged down in them ruminating on how unfair life is. Or making snide little comments about how much luck is involved in publishing. Or…

It doesn’t matter. The real takeaway here is that these people, no matter how much you love them, are not your friends right now. If you have to see them, gird your loins. Ideally, you can keep contact to a minimum and go back on a trial basis later (but you don’t have to give them a second chance). Whatever the issue in their life is that they can’t be happy, if they can’t talk to you about it straight on and are instead trying to make sure you feel terrible, don’t spend your time and energy on that. Because…

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Rule 7: Success is a mind@$#%.

Sorry, but it really is. Success is, genuinely, a difficult thing to get through. People come out of the woodwork to ask for money, manuscript help, and for you to send their book to your mailing list. Suddenly, administrative tasks (book bloggers, local newspaper and bookstore calls, setting up a business account at the bank) seem to take up 98% of your day, and the truth is, you’re letting them, because…

…how the $%#* are you ever going to repeat your success? You have become very aware that your success is a gigantic fluke, that you never deserved it, that you can’t repeat it, and even if you think your last book was hot shit, you have no idea where the magic comes from and you’re sure it’s gone forever.

So I’m going to say what even the most supportive people in your life might have trouble saying: it’s okay to be overwhelmed right now. It really is difficult. Take care of yourself in all the small ways. Call a friend. Cry over a journal entry. Eat three cupcakes by yourself or buy some expensive running shoes or whatever it is that will help you get through this really, really difficult moment right now. And just try, for me – for me – to write one sentence. That’s all you have to do. It doesn’t have to be good. Just a few words on that new manuscript, the one you were so excited about a few months back.

Just write one sentence. You can do it.

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Rule 8: Whatever you do to make the money for bills is work.

As with many rules on this list, I wish I could tell you otherwise, but I can’t. Writing is torturous and transcendent and amazing and difficult and wonderful, sometimes all at the same time, but if you do this for a living, it will also be work. You will have deadlines and bad days and rewrites and it will be hard and you will need to do it because the bills have to get paid.

I don’t know how else to say this, but I think this is the thing I have the most trouble explaining to people. Art is difficult. Art for a living is difficult. You will need to show up even when you don’t feel like it to get things done. Often, you would rather be there than anywhere else, because you love writing and you’re amazingly happy that you get to write every day. But if you’re picturing lazy mornings with a couple of hours of work and then bumming around in cafes, I’m afraid that isn’t the reality most of us have. (That’s not the reality most of us want to have, either, but that could just be sampling error.)

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Rule 9: People definitely, positively judge books by their covers.

It’s true. Study the covers in your subgenre and ask around for people’s recommendations of cover designers. Same goes for blurbs. Writing blurbs sucks big-time, but it has to be done.

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Rule 10: Getting better at writing, outlining, and hitting tropes will not destroy the magic.

This is a fear I harbored for a very long time. I was afraid that outlines would trap me, tropes would turn me into a hack, and craft notes would make my book sound like everyone else’s. Instead, here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Learning the ins and outs of craft helps you tell the story only you can tell. You don’t have to use all of the advice you’re given, but you’ll have it in your wheelhouse.
  • Writing without outlining is just outlining very slowly, via trial and error. Outlining can save you from spending massive amounts of time going down a dead end, but in no way means you won’t get surprised by your story and your characters.
  • People love tropes for a reason. Look at the underlying hook in those stories before dismissing them. Beyond that, look at tropes as tools: as story shorthand, they’re something that most readers will grasp instinctively, allowing you to make innovative plays and go deeper with your story than you might otherwise have time to do.

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Rule 11: Play.

This is your career and it is important, but please, please never take yourself or your craft too seriously to play around with your language, story outlining, genre, or anything else. Keep your experiments hidden if you’d like to (I know I often do), but don’t ever stop experimenting. Even techniques you don’t use much can still be there for when you need them. You wouldn’t expect a sculptor only to use one tool to shape their chosen medium, or a painter to use only one brush, and you don’t have to use only one, either. Play!

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Suggested reading (in no particular order):

  • For Love or Money, Susan Kaye Quinn
  • The Indie Author Survival Guide, Susan Kaye Quinn
  • Write to Market, Chris Fox
  • Launch to Market, Chris Fox
  • 5k Words per Hour, Chris Fox
  • 2k to 10k, Rachel Aaron
  • Take Off Your Pants, Libbie Hawker
  • Story Engineering, Larry Brooks
  • Scene and Structure, Jack Bickham
  • Wired for Story, Lisa Cron
  • Lindsay Buroker’s blog
  • Hugh Howey’s blog
  • Chuck Wendig’s blog
  • John Scalzi’s blog

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As a parting note, the same rules of life apply here as well: check for references on contractors, don’t believe sky-high promises, don’t let any of your own crap limit your writing, remember to take care of yourself, be kind. Let go of your books once they get out into the world, and when you see bad reviews, remind yourself that there are books you hated, too. If you keep working, keep learning, keep playing, keep stretching – you’re going to be fine.

So pull out a notebook and start writing – I want to see your stuff pop up in my Amazon suggestions! -M

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